A couple of evenings ago I was sitting on the A train reading battered and damp printout of Reyner Banham’s 1965 article The Great Gizmo, published in Industrial Design, my ink underlines were going fuzzy at the edges, when I was distracted from my study by a moving image. A young man with a peach-fuzz face was showing off his new Blackberry to his girlfriend. His device wasn’t exactly revolutionary; it shoots and display video. Eventually they would take turns filming themselves kissing, pressing their faces close as if the subway was one big photo booth. But the item on screen that caught my eye was a horse.
A light tan stallion stood framed on his handheld. The camera panned, but the horse didn’t move. It zoomed in on a magnificent flank, but the animal remained still. It’s a photograph, I thought, a page from an equestrian catalogue or magazine or book. The staged image was beautiful, powerful, animal. Its coat, translated into emitted light, gleamed like nothing before it. How strange. A horse on the subway.
Early in his essay Banham’s gizmatic thinking moves from localized devices: transistor radios, cordless shavers, and walkie talkies, to the infrastructureless American expansion: outboard motors, Sears Roebucks catalogs, and balloon framing.
The quintessential gadgetry of the pioneering frontiersman had to be carried across trackless country, set down in a wild place, and left to transform that hostile environment without skilled attention. Its function was to bring instant order or human comfort into a situation which had previously an undifferentiated mess, and for this reason it is so deeply involved with the American mythology of the wilderness that its philosophy will bear looking into, both for its American consequences and for the consequences of its introduction into other landscapes, other scenes.
And so, a horse punctuated my reading of Banham’s excursion into the western wilds. Not a drab mare, the uncelebrated laborer of nineteenth century cities, but a robust creature of the cowboy genre. Its inappropriate presence somewhere below Eighth Avenue reminded me of how far removed we are as a country from the country. Our contemporary gizmos are symbols of urbanity, endlessly tied to a networked infrastructure and laced with cosmopolitan appeal.
I say this not to drop into a Green Acres pop-nostalgia for haylofts and hillbillies, but at a time when urban farming has steadily moved from the arenas of speculative, eco-centric blogging to mainstream creative class lifestyle. Banham writes, “Rural happiness in US was never to be the privilege of the few, but was to be the common property of every member of the family, thanks to domestic mechanization.” Today, domestic agriculturalization takes command.
If the bubble burst of 2001 issued in a decade of nesty crafting—the indie bloom of the domestic arts such as knitting, sewing, and needlepoint and its own detournement, then our current recession comes with a green thumb, American Gothic style—victory gardens, edible lawns, and sharecropping rooftops. Never in recent history have so many people looked into their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes and wondered what to do with kale. Trendsetting locavores are raising bees (almost legal in New York City after years of contention) and chickens—the later giving rise to a host of Banham-esque gadgetry.
The subgenre of poultry prefab offers up huts, Eglus, and coops all designed to blend the more palatable aspects of agriculture—crowing cocks and cuddly chicks—into daily urban and suburban life. Chicken coops fulfill Banham’s gizmo checklist:
“…A small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires. The minimum of skill is required in its installation and use, and it is independent of any physical or social infrastructure beyond that by which it may be ordered from a catalogue and delivered to its prospective user.”
But ultimately they remain closer to hairdryers, devices linked to personalization, than to a pastoral enterprise. Across the country aficionados (such as Susan Orlean) cluck approvingly about their poultry routines: the scattering of feed and importantly, the gathering of eggs. The perfect egg, humane and free of hormones, the yolk a golden symbol of the good life.
It’s not surprising that legs and breasts are left out of the equation. These birds are productive pets. Their necks are safe. Credit is to be given to Chef Daniel Barber whose working farm is the site of the high end restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Diners who arrive early can tour the slaughterhouse. “It’s about life and death and disease, and that’s part of what it means to live in an agricultural community,” he said in a 2008 interview published in the Times. “We’re not Disneyland.”Strange Harvest, Sam Jacob uses Banham’s essay to frame the vast desert landscape of Chuck Jones’ Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons—there gadgetry promises the Frontierland wish that the West is a place where anything can happen, but fails again and again.
“Each episode sees the Coyote attempt to catch the Roadrunner, aided by the products he orders from the ACME Corporation, that make-anything, deliver-anywhere parody of consumerisms seemingly limitless offer. Amazing products arrive crated up almost instantaneously. Things like the Do-It Yourself Tornado Kit, Dehydrated Boulders, Earthquake Pills, Jet Propelled Pogo Stick, Triple Strength Fortified Leg Muscle Vitamins, and the amazingly named Acme Future Push Button Home Of Tomorrow Household Appliance Co. ACMEs products parodied post war trends towards mechanization, convenience and consumerism.
… Banham argued that Sears Roebuck delivered a kind of gadgetecture, an out-of-the-box instant urbanism and for this this reason, gadgetry was "deeply involved with the American mythology of the wilderness.”’
For Banham, the gizmo bridges the space, cognitive and otherwise, between here and there. Between backyard comforts and rural expanses which come with uncomfortable surprises, such as where our food comes from. It’s no wonder people get queasy. Industrialized meat production is a desert wasteland of its own invention—artificial and mechanized. A corn-fed crisis well documented by Michael Pollan. His visualization of Big Agro put a run on grass-fed beef. And chefs’ and foodies’ taste for the stuff has spatial consequences. New York City’s demand drives small farmers in upstate New York to raise happy cows, but where to slaughter them? There’s a shortage of abattoirs.
“Farms and big business can afford to ship their animals to mega USDA slaughterhouses but the small farmer can not. USDA approved slaughterhouses are a rare thing in upstate New York and we need more of them,” laments Ulla, a farmer’s daughter who blogs about Spring Lake Farm, a purveyor of grass-fed beef and lamb.
The solution is a gizmo: the mobile slaughterhouse.
The Italian company produces Sint Technology sells the The Meat Processing Unit (MPU). The MPU fits a plug-and-play production line, complete with electric stunner and blood and viscera collection points in a portable container. Cows come in one side, beef comes out the other. The MPU also comes with philosophy, the Sint website reads:
“In America, it is tradition that a good home cooked meal on the farm is the best meal you can get. The MPU allows a modern way to bring back that feeling of local pride that many have lost for generations.”
The MPU’s domestic impulse to create a narrative about the American home recalls one of from Banham’s essay, the Clark Cortez camper, a “self-propelled residential gizmo” he calls the queen of the American road, writing “The Clark’s running gear is a hot-rodder of proprietary catalogue components, and once tanked up and its larder stocked it is independent of all infrastructures for considerable periods of time.”
While Banham’s tendency is to use gadgets to urbanize the rural, the MPU offers the potential to truly bring agrarian life to the city—the logical extension of urban farming and a return to an earlier version of the city when New York had streets named Abattoir Place (West 39th Street between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues) and Slaughter House Lane (an L-shaped street connecting William and Pearl Streets).
Still, meat in the city, like bees and chickens, comes with contention. The Times reported that while spots in Queens have the highest concentration of live animal markets in the country, ones that meet kosher and halal standards as well as ones that provide flanks to Blue Hill, there's bone picking going on.
“Perhaps inevitably, when it comes to killing animals for food, immigrant Queens clashes with suburban-homeowning Queens: Some of the people who worry about factory-produced meat are unenthusiastic about having mom-and-pop abattoirs next door.”